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Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson (1669-1748)
The Bishop and the Harlot: the Gibson-Hogarth connection

A portrait of Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson (1669-1748) (see image above) hangs to the left of the main door of Hall. R H Hodgkin (Provost 1937-1946) in his 1954 history of Queen’s considered most College portraits to be of historical rather than artistic interest: the artist, John Vanderbank (1694-1739) gets a mention but not the sitter.  But Gibson himself is certainly worthy of recall historically as one of the foremost churchmen of his age, both as ecclesiastical statesman and bishop. He also enjoys a small presence in art history with references to him in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1731), the first “modern moral subject”, which established Hogarth’s reputation and fortune.

Edmund Gibson was born at High Knipe, Bampton in the Vale of Bampton in Westmorland where Richard Hogarth (d. 1717), William’s father is believed to have been born in 1664.  Both were Latin scholars probably attending the same school in Bampton. There is a tradition that Gibson and Richard travelled down to London together in 1686, the former on his way to The Queen’s College. Their fortunes thereafter certainly diverged with the Protestant dissenter Richard Hogarth becoming bankrupt and spending five years in the Fleet prison following the failure of a pedagogic career and his Latin speaking coffee house venture near Smithfield. Edmund Gibson entered the college as a batteler in August 1686 and was elected BA and a Grindal scholar in 1690. Studying theology, he became a fellow in 1696 until 1701 when he resigned on becoming rector of Sisted, Essex.

In his subsequent clerical career, Gibson’s anti-Jacobite and anti -Tory sermons and his espousal of Whig causes led eventually to his appointment in 1723 as Bishop of London. He proceeded to exercise for the administration of Viscount Townshend and Sir Robert Walpole considerable power and influence over church policy and, most importantly, patronage. He ensured that the bishops in the House of Lords were largely of the Whig persuasion and voted the party line. He was referred to as “Walpole’s Pope”.

His major preoccupation during the late 1720s and early 1730s was the growth of “profaneness and impiety” which he attributed mainly to the writings of “infidels” attacking Christianity.    Between 1728 and 1731 he appealed directly to the inhabitants of his diocese in a series of “Pastoral letters” of simple “Rules and Cautions” designed to strengthen the faith of “sincere and unprejudic’d Christians”.  They proved accessible to their readers and a remarkable publishing success but were ridiculed as too pro-Walpole.

And it was the social mores and lax sexual attitudes of the day that led to the second Gibson-Hogarth association. William Hogarth (1697-1764) produced his six paintings of A Harlot’s Progress in 1731 providing in theatrical fashion an account of an innocent young seamstress arriving in London to be taken under the wing of a leading brothel madam, becoming the mistress of a rich Jew, then arrested by a noted campaigning magistrate to spend time hammering hemp in Bridewell and in the fifth scene to die of syphilis whilst famous “quacks” argue the merits of their respective pills and potions. The sixth scene shows her funeral with clergy, bawds and whores ensuring further “progresses”. The paintings were lost in a house fire in 1755 but Hogarth ever astute commercially had actively advertised the engraved prints of 1732 which made him secure financially and established his reputation. His story was very popular in the light of the salacious subject matter and the inclusion of contemporary personages and scandals. Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London was prominently in the public eye and features in the first three Harlot scenes.

We first meet Moll Hackabout demurely off the coach from York to be enrolled by the fashionable brothel keeper Mother Elizabeth Needham whilst the clergyman who might have helped, turns his back on her, busy reading his letter to the Bishop of London, seeking preferment and patronage. Mother Needham in May 1731 had been pelted to death in the pillory. The figure in the doorway would have been recognised as Colonel Francis Charteris, a notorious womaniser and rapist and wealthy supporter of Walpole, recently sentenced to death for rape but pardoned thanks to his political allegiance. Hogarth here records one law for the poor…..

The references to Gibson in the scene with the rich Jew are less direct. The pictures on the walls include portraits of the theologian Thomas Woolston and writer Samuel Clarke two of Gibson’s “infidels” and “enemies of Christianity”. They have been described as deists and freethinkers. Woolston whose Discourses led to Gibson’s first Pastoral Letter questioned the historical authenticity of Christ’s miracles, was prosecuted for blasphemy on the instigation of Gibson and died in prison four years later having been unable to pay the fine. The two paintings are from the Old Testament and reinforce the scene’s antisemitism. The first represents Jonah, vengefully bewailing God’s failure to punish the Gentile inhabitants of Ninevah. The other shows Uzzah slain by God as a non- Levite (priest), for sacrilegiously touching the toppling Ark of the Covenant. He is however stabbed in the back by a figure in robes wearing a bishop’s mitre, a reference perhaps to Gibson’s persecution of “infidels” trying to realign Christian beliefs.

In the next scene Moll is about to be arrested by the vigilante magistrate Sir John Gonson who dedicated himself to clearing the Drury Lane and Covent Garden areas of brothels and prostitutes.  A Gibson pastoral letter is now serving Moll on the table in front of her as a butter dish a measure of all the help the Church ever gave her.

In 1736, Gibson resigned as “church minister” in protest at Walpole’s bill to reduce dissenter liabilities. He was later offered the archbishopric of York and later still the Primacy but declined both pleading age and ill-health.

Hogarth for his part attacked the Anglican church in much of his early satirical work as self-serving, God-less and uncaring about their flock, attitudes coloured no doubt by his dissenter background and his father’s fate, but of course he did not spare politicians, lawyers and doctors for similar failings. The College sadly does not possess a portrait of John Gibson, Edmund’s older brother and Provost from 1716/17 to 1730.

Barry Hoffbrand (Physiological Sciences, 1952)